I AM UAA: Arlitia Jones

March 28, 2012

M.F.A. Creative Writing ’95
Hometown: Anchorage, AK
Fun Fact: “Raced” in the Iknitarod, heralded as “the toughest knit on Earth”

I AM UAA Arlitia Jones

When she’s not writing, award-winning poet and playwright Arlitia Jones is busy trying something completely different. This winter it’s a skate skiing class and training for a marathon. “I’m not good or anything,” she says, laughing. The skate skiing class is with a friend and Arlitia says, “These poor, beautiful 19-year-old guys trying to teach us. We get the giggles because we’re so bad.” They also get a few concerned, “Ma’am are you okay?” comments when they end up on the ground. Sometimes being a self-described “discovery junkie” comes with a few lumps and bumps. She shrugs as she says, “I am always trying to do something new. Push myself. It’s like this play I’m starting—I don’t know the end of it. I have to finish to find out. It’s how I’ve always been. Sometimes it leads to failure.” But mostly not when it comes to writing, judging by her publishing credits and glowing praise from critics.

Years ago a little soul-searching kept Arlitia from pursuing the wrong major as an undergraduate at UAA. That, and a frank meeting with her advisor who noted that she was taking a lot of English classes for an education major. “My advisor said, ‘Are you sure you’re an education major?’ And I said, ‘I think so.’” But truthfully, all she wanted to do was write and read, so she would take a couple education classes and load the rest of her schedule with English electives. On the brink of student teaching, she officially abandoned education as a major to pursue what she loved: English.

But that was just the beginning. Several years after graduating with a B.A. in English from UAA, Arlitia made the choice to come back and pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing.

“I sat down and looked at my writing and I knew I wasn’t going to get any better, because I’d reached this certain level on my own and I needed to go further.” Having overcome much of the shyness that plagued her as an undergrad, and knowing Anchorage was where she belonged, she went in to meet students and professors and decided UAA’s M.F.A. program was where she wanted to be. The graduate program was, she says, “my chance to have an intensive study of what it was I wanted to throw my life toward, which was poetry, and to get to study with so many other students who felt that way.”

Her master’s thesis eventually became “The Bandsaw Riots”—a collection of poetry inspired by her life behind the scenes in her parents’ butcher shop—which was selected for publication by Bear Star Press in 2001 and won the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize. Poet Dorianne Laux says, “I’m drawn to the voice of this butcher’s daughter, wrapping pork chops and steaks alongside the men, meditating on Yeats and Mother Jones…These are tough poems of toil and kin and Arlitia Jones is a poet. It’s in her bones and blood. She takes the language of that place and uses it, like a tool, to chisel deep and lasting marks.”

So how did she become a playwright? From poet to playwright is not as big of a leap as one might think. “My poetry is the language that people speak. That’s where it comes from. That’s where my ear is tuned. So to turn it to dialogue for a play was natural.” That, and her friend and fellow playwright Dawson Moore, coordinator for the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, invited her over one night for what she thought was a barbecue, but turned out to be her first Overnighters experience. The Alaska Overnighters, another project of Moore’s, throws down the gauntlet on a group of writers, directors, actors and other creative types with the goal of a fully realized play, page-to-stage, in 24 hours. Survivors of this theatrical marathon get invited back year after year and Arlitia has been a regular since that first “barbecue” invitation. “He still owes me a barbecue, by the way,” she says.

Arlitia has written numerous plays since then with her first full-length play, “Sway Me, Moon,” picked up for production in Anchorage by Three Wise Moose in 2008 and reprised later that same year at the Valdez Last Frontier Theatre Conference. In 2007 her short play, “Grand Central and 42nd,” was selected for production in New York by the Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival. She was again selected in 2011 by the same group, this time to present her short play, “The Empirical Eskimo.” And right now she’s busy revising (when she’s not skiing or running or quilting or working full-time as bookkeeper/meat wrapper at her family’s butcher shop) a new play, “Rush at Everlasting,” which has been selected by the Northwest Playwrights Alliance for a staged reading at the Seattle Repertory Theatre in April.

It appears the need to consult an advisor has diminished—her future as a poet/playwright seems set. You might be able to reverse things and describe her a playwright/poet, but the two arts are forever slash-linked to form Arlitia’s perfect profession. “A play doesn’t have a lot of exposition. It’s all dialogue. Poetry. All poetry. And I get to be the god and put in stage directions.”

She’s animated as she describes being able to tell a story through a living body that moves through time and space. As a rule, she says, she writes big without getting bogged down by the how-will-this-be-staged question, choosing instead to let a director or set designer solve visual dilemmas. “When it works, there’s nothing like collaboration because it makes the work so much bigger than anything I could have made with just the page,” she says. She’s written in volcanoes and tree-felling that have taken more than one creative mind and clever carpenter to solve. But she laughs and admits, “I’ve got a play right now that nobody will touch. I’ve got 100 chickens on stage and no one wants to do it.” A backstage chicken hypnotist has been suggested, but still no takers.

Arlitia’s collaborative theatre family often intersects with her daily family life. Her day job managing operations in the family business, C&J Tender Meat Company, seems far-removed from her poet/playwright career, but she admits to some creative flourishes that plague her mom, who trained Arlitia as bookkeeper. “When we get a voided check, I’ll never just write ‘void,’ I’ll write, ‘off into the distance it rode, never to be seen again’ or something like that.” And at home, husband Dan acts as first reader for her work and is frequently seen in production programs listed under “Special Props.” For “Sway Me, Moon,” he was able to construct a peach tree that could be cut down every night on stage.

She’s been asked why she doesn’t make the move to Hollywood and six-figure income possibilities. Her reply? “Because then I would live in Hollywood. You would have to pay me way more than six figures to live there.” For her, Alaska is home. It’s where she’ll find the poetry that becomes her next play. Of her future goals, she says simply, “I want to keep getting better.” And she wants to continue feeling the rush that comes with new discoveries. She’s in the midst of writing a new play right now and discovering what happens to the characters she’s created. She says, “If I knew the ending, I wouldn’t write it.”

The hobbies, though, might change. She’ll keep quilting and knitting (she’s a member of Ravelry, the social network for knitters), two hobbies she’s shared with her nephews, now teenagers who don’t mind helping her piece together a quilt. But she says, “The skate skiing might not take. Who knows?” Next winter, you might find her ice fishing. Or caring for 100 chickens.

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